Chances are, you take note when Intel and AMD release new CPUs, and when NVIDIA and AMD release new GPUs. Processors and graphics cards are exciting topics, and every year seems to bring significant increases in power. Memory isn’t quite so sexy, though, and most people are likely unaware that there’s a new version of RAM coming — DDR5 — that promises equally important increases in performance.
System Memory Basics
RAM, or Random-Access Memory, is where data is stored in the short term and while the PC is turned on. The information that the CPU needs to do its job is stored in RAM, either as it’s generated by the CPU or pulled as needed from long-term storage like spinning hard disk drives (HDDs) or solid-state drives (SSDs).
Measured in frequency, memory speed is important because it helps determine how quickly the CPU can perform. A fast CPU can be brought to its knees by slow memory, sitting around waiting for information rather than working to keep the PC running at full tilt.
What does DDR mean?
DDR stands for Double Data Rate, which just as it sounds means the memory can move data at twice the rate of single data rate memory. DDR has been the standard for several generations now, with DDR4 being DDR5’s natural predecessor. The memory’s full name is DDR SDRAM, where SDRAM stands for Synchronous Dynamic Random-Access Memory.
What’s new with DDR5?
DDR5 brings several improvements over DDR4. The first and most dramatic is performance.
Every generation of DDR memory had a speed at launch that steadily increased as manufacturers made improvements to the architecture. DDR4, for example, started out at a transfer rate of 1,600 megabits per second (Mbps), or more precisely 800 Mbps at a double data rate. This was referred to as DDR-1600. DDR4 has maxed out at 3,200 Mbps, DDR4-3200.
DDR5 will start at a range of 4,800Mbps to 5,600 Mbps and be designated as DDR5-4800 SDRAM. That’s an improvement of 1.8 times over DDR4, and as an example, a 5,600Mbps transfer rate would be capable of transmitting nine 5 gigabyte (GB) Full HD videos per second. DDR 5 will also increase in speed over time, providing significantly faster raw performance than DDR4. Already, transfer rates of 6,400Mbps are in the works.
The next major improvement is that DDR5 will use less power than DDR4. Specifically, DDR4 draws 1.2 volts while DDR5 will draw 1.1 volts. That doesn’t sound like a significant difference, but it’s considered a very meaningful reduction (20%) in power requirements.
DDR5 will also be available in larger capacities, from 8 gigabit (Gb) modules up to 32Gb. That’s double the capacities of DDR4, which range from 4Gb to 16Gb. These modules determine the size of the RAM chips that are installed in a PC, meaning that DDR5 represents a doubling of memory capacity. Up to 128GB DDR5 RAM chips could make their way to market, enabling massive amounts of memory compared to contemporary PCs.
Finally, desktop DDR5 RAM will include some error-correcting code (ECC) on-chip, a feature previously reserved for server memory. That will improve the memory’s reliability by reducing errors and improving the reliability of applications by up to 20 times compared to DDR4.
Those are the easy-to-explain improvements that DDR5 will bring over DDR4, and there are more complex improvements as well. Those are outside the scope of this article, but suffice it to say that DDR5 will represent more than a single generation’s improvement over DDR4.
When will DDR5 be available in PCs?
The DDR5 standard was published by the JEDEC Solid State Technology Association in July, 2020. RAM maker SK Hynix has produced the first DDR5 modules, 64GB pieces that are aimed at data centers. PCs are expected to start supporting DDR5 RAM sometime in 2021, with 10% of all RAM being DDR5 in 2022. By 2024, 43% of PCs will use DDR5 RAM.
The timing couldn’t be better. Today’s CPUs, particularly AMD’s latest chips, will benefit tremendously from the faster performance that DDR5 will achieve.
DDR5 represents a tremendous advance in PC memory, and will bring with it some serious performance improvements that will impact intense processes like video editing and encoding, computer-aided design, scientific computing, and much more. If you’re in the market for a new PC, then it might be a while before you can buy one with DDR5 RAM installed — but it might also be worth waiting for.